Mind's not right (PoemTalk #102)

Robert Lowell, 'Skunk Hour'

PoemTalk #102 was recorded in the Woodberry Poetry Room, Lamont Library, Harvard University. From left to right: Lisa New, Rafael Campo, Christina Davis.


Al Filreis traveled to Harvard University and was hosted for this on-the-road episode of PoemTalk by the staff of the Woodberry Poetry Room (WPR) in Lamont Library, where Lisa New, Rafael Campo, and WPR Director Christina Davis joined him for a conversation about Robert Lowell’s poem “Skunk Hour.” Probably Lowell’s most well-known poem, it was placed last in Life Studies (1959) but had been written first — and can be said to have inaugurated Lowell’s “looser” style, associated with his so-called “confessional” mode. When Lowell began composing “Skunk Hour,” he later recalled, “I felt that most of what I knew about writing was a hindrance.” Our conversation is taken up by the many conflicting aspects of that perceived hindrance. And on top of those there are, of course, the hindrances put up by the new, allegedly freeing style itself. How to work through the unfree assumptions behind the island’s “fairy decorator” as a stock character? What exactly is the “hierarchic privacy” the poem mocks and at the same time seems to desire? Is such longing discernible in the poem’s portentous poetics? What inner theological struggle does the poem express and can the speaker draw from New England’s Puritan relationship to the land and indigenous languages a means of managing Miltonian sin? How open is the skunk as a symbol? And whence the quoted phrases from pop music and Milton’s Satan side by side? The four talkers do not agree on answers to these questions and they are variously doubtful and amazed by Lowell’s emotional and lyric pretensions and by his projection of psychological crisis on New England history and nature, but they come — iteratively in conversation and collaboratively — to admire the complexity of the poem’s mix of transitional poetic stances.

We at PoemTalk wish to thank Christina Davis and her staff for hosting us. This episode was engineered by Al Filreis even as he performed his hosting and moderating duties, and later has been phonologically mastered and edited by Zach Carduner.

With what geometry (PoemTalk #101)

Edward Dorn, 'The Sundering U.P. Tracks'

Left to right: Simone White, Sophia Le Fraga, Andrew Whiteman


Simone White, Sophia Le Fraga, and Andrew Whiteman joined Al Filreis to discuss a poem by Ed Dorn called “The Sundering U.P. Tracks.” It was published in 1967 as part of The North Atlantic Turbine. A note by Dorn atop the verse indicates that it stands at “the end of” that work. A coda? A polemical postscript? The recording of the poem, available at Dorn’s PennSound page, is undated and (as yet) unsourced. For the purposes of our discussion we assumed that the performance was roughly contemporaneous with the publication of the poem — so, let us say, late 1960s or early 1970s. Listeners to the episode will sense that the apparent importance of that dating is not entirely clear to us, but that in the emergence of our political reading of the poem we situate it as a late-1960s reflection back on a slightly earlier moment of realization and radicalization: it recollects and with a bit of distance and greater knowledge recalls the turning-point summer of 1965, when Dorn’s collaborator, photographer Leroy McLucas, came to Pocatello only to discover that because of the racial dividing line he had to be housed on the other side of the tracks. The racial trope and idiom of the US East reverts to its literal origins in the making of the US West. And there it is: the key fault line, a built-environment actuality and metaphor. The drawing of a line is the sundering that is endemic to the use of Right of Way to abet the westward expansion of American capital. And Ed Dorn, as the four PoemTalkers iteratively and collaboratively (and to some extent, for some of us, grudgingly) come to realize, is ready rhetorically and politically for a counter-expansion that rereads American generations of Manifest Destiny, monopoly, segregation, and local oligarchy on one hand, and, on the other, “summer firebombs / of Chicago.” The latter are responses to “the old isolator / that ambassador at large,” the younger Harriman, who as “distinguished elder statesman of the foreign-policy establishment” and member of the so-called Wise Men under JFK and LBJ points toward a technocratic globalized version of robber baronism. “[T]he rapacious geo-economic surgery of Harriman,” in the poem’s phrase, necessitates the synthesizing politics of the 1960s, and Dorn here realizes that that analysis begins with race.

There may be a grand environmental dimension to that synthesis too. Several times during our conversation Simone emphazies Dorn’s apparent search for vast geological and ancient terrestrial contexts that can help put the lie to the dividing line. “How many thousand years too late now / is that desire” — the vain longing, that is, to accept “my town in my fair country” as his without irony; to welcome Leroy McLucas truly to “stay with me”? The PoemTalk group must do some hard work with literary-political poetics here, observing for instance that 1965 was a critical point for US avant-garde poetry and for the Ed Dorn/Amiri Baraka relationship. The poem’s convergence of McLucas and Jones — the two Le Rois/Leroys — also “bears the scar / of an expert linear division” that is thus not only the railroad coming through another American town but “cosmological America” overall.

The images below show the two pages on which the poem appears in Edward Dorn Collected Poems, ed. Jennifer Dunbar Dorn (Manchester, UK: Carcanet, 2012), 283–84. Click on an image for a larger view.

PoemTalk episode #101 was recorded in the Wexler Studio of the Kelly Writers House in Philadelphia. Our engineer and editor was Zach Carduner. We are pleased to say again that PoemTalk is a collaboration of PennSound, the Kelly Writers House, and the Poetry Foundation. You can subscribe to PoemTalk through iTunes. You can also download every episode at the Poetry Foundation website or here at Jacket2.

A PoemTalk retrospective (PoemTalk #100)

PoemTalkers each respond to two episodes

From left to right: William J. Harris, Tracie Morris, erica kaufman, Steve McLaughlin, Herman Beavers, Maria Damon, and Charles Bernstein.


To celebrate the one hundredth episode of PoemTalk — the series began in 2007 and is ongoing — producer and host Al Filreis convened seven poet-critics who had participated in previous episodes: Herman Beavers, Maria Damon, William J. Harris, erica kaufman, Tracie Morris, Steve McLaughlin, and Charles Bernstein. These seven were asked to listen again to the series and choose two episodes that in particular stimulated new thinking or the desire to revise, restate, reaffirm, assess, and/or commend. During this special session — presented to a live audience at the Kelly Writers House — each of the seven spoke on one episode for a first round, then a second selection of seven episodes for a second round. This was followed by a discussion of the podcast as a form with its methodological and even pedagogical aspects.

We present this special hundredth episode as an edited audio recording, in the usual format (linked here as a downloadable MP3 audio file, and available on iTunes in both the Poetry Foundation feed and that of PennSound/Kelly Writers House). We also present the full, unedited video recording of the entire event (see below).

Here is your guide to the two rounds of restrospective comments:

Steve McLaughlin: (1) PT #17 on Rodrigo Toscano; (2) PT #33 on Sharon Mesmer
erica kaufman: (1) PT #45 on Eileen Myles; (2) PT #53 on Joan Retallack
Tracie Morris: (1) PT #89 on Nathaniel Mackey; (2) PT #76 on Anne Waldman
William J. Harris: (1) PT #71 on Claude McKay; (2) PT #16 on Robert Creeley
Maria Damon: (1) PT #43 on John Wieners; (2) PT #88 on Kathy Acker
Herman Beavers: (1) PT #26 on Vachel Lindsay; (2) PT #78 on Muriel Rukeyser
Charles Bernstein: (1) PT #93 on Helen Adam; (2) PT #75 on Will Alexander

This special episode/event — difficult to capture well, and simultaneously, on various live and recording media — was expertly recorded, engineered, and then edited by Zach Carduner. At various moments during the particular retrospectives, Al Filreis gave thankful shout-outs to various people who supported and traveled great distances to join PoemTalk over the years. The PoemTalk people are especially grateful to our colleagues at the Poetry Foundation, who have cosponsored PoemTalk consistently and faithfully from the beginning; to the aforementioned Steve McLaughlin who recorded most and edited all of the first seventy-five episodes; to Allison Harris and Amaris Cuchanski who edited several episodes each until Zach Carduner took on the role; to James La Marre who engineered a number of episodes and made the trip to Bard College to record the special Jackson Mac Low-on-Ezra Pound episode featuring Joan Retallack, Charles Bernstein, and Pierre Joris; to the staff of the Center for Programs in Contemporary Writing and of the Kelly Writers House at Penn; to Al’s PennSound colleagues, Michael Hennessey, Charles Bernstein, Chris Mustazza, Chris Martin, and others who encourage PoemTalk as a sister project; to Rodger and Hillary Miller Krouse for their support of the Digital Poetries Fund at the Kelly Writers House; to Gary, Nina, and Freddy Wexler who made possible the creation of our Wexler Studio, which is the recording home of PoemTalk (along with nearly every other recording made at the Writers House); and to John MacDermott, Kerry Sherin Wright, and Ira Winston, among others, who between the mid- and late 1990s encouraged Al to make, organize, and archive audio and video recordings of collaborative presentations of poetry (and to stream them live).

Click on the screenshot above to watch the first half of the video recording of the event.

Click on the screenshot just above to watch the second half of the video recording of the event.

The unabettable bleak (PoemTalk #99)

William Bronk, 'Finding Losses'

William Bronk in 1981, Hudson Falls, NY (photograph by Daniel Leary)


Julia Bloch, Joseph Massey, and Michelle Gil-Montero joined Al Filreis to discuss four four-line poems by William Bronk. The four were selected from Bronk’s book Finding Losses, which was published by Elizabeth Press in 1976. PennSound’s Bronk page presents two recordings, both done in the fall of 1978. Performances of “The Inability,” “On Being Together,” “The Rapport,” and “Names Like Barney Cain’s” can be heard in the recording made by Verna Gillis in Hudson Falls, New York, on October 13, 1978.

Al asks Joe Massey — a poet influenced by Bronk — if the inability to write fictively (“Make believe”) in “The Inability” corresponds to an inability to relate, to touch, to love as presented in “On Being Together.” Joe responds by describing Bronk’s utter rejection of the pathetic fallacy. The world is unabettably bleak, and that desolation will not be lessened by the writer’s act of “compar[ing] trees to what it means to be human.” Indeed, all four of these poems, Julia adds, identify “an honest acknowledgement of how deep and challenging intimacy can be,” and that challenge not only extends to poetry but is at the heart of it. Michelle agrees, and turns back to “On Being Together,” the poem about trees, describing it as presenting the fundamental “problem of proximity,” which is a problem of being, but also one of representation. Bronk’s persistent understanding of this problem, Joe says, is chiefly why he is to be admired — for believing that he, despite a powerful urge to write, is “unable to say anything that is definite.” The powerful utterance of the word “nothing” at the finale of “Names Like Barney Cain’s,” a poem about what’s left when only a name remains, testifies to such unfixed doubt.

This ninety-ninth episode of PoemTalk was directed and engineered by Zach Carduner, and edited by the very same Zack Carduner. PoemTalk is cosponsored by the Kelly Writers House, the Center for Programs in Contemporary Writing, and the Poetry Foundation. The next PoemTalk will be our 100th; such a centenary provides the occasion for us to gather together eight poets who have joined us for PoemTalk previously, for an extended conversation that features retrospectives on sixteen episodes, and on the series overall. Look for that episode in May 2016.


She wants me to say something pretty to her because
we both know the unabettable
bleak of the world. Make believe, she says,
what harm? It may be so. I can’t. I don’t.


I watch how beautifully two trees
stand together; one against one.
Not touching. Not awareness.
But we would try these. We are always wrong.


There’s a dead dog at Barber’s Bridge
tied to a tree and two ugly stories why.
Make your own choice; either could be.
Hearing, seeing, I believe both of them.


Two locks on the Feeder are named for him.
I have asked and nobody knows who he is.
Alexander, Alfred, Quetzalcoatl,
nobody, nowhere, never, nothing.

CAConrad in the studio

PennSound podcast #55

CAConrad. Photo by Dogface Studios of Olympia.
CAConrad. Photo by Dogface Studios of Olympia.


CAConrad returned to the Kelly Writers House on January 27, 2016, to visit the Wexler Studio to speak with Julia Bloch and to read from ECODEVIANCE: (Soma)tics for the Future Wilderness, which appeared from Wave Books in 2014, as well as a number of new works generated from his ongoing performative and pedagogical practice of somatics and ecopoetics. CAConrad grew up in Pennsylvania and is the author of seven books, including ECODEVIANCE A Beautiful Marsupial Afternoon, The Book of Frank, and Advanced Elvis Course, all of which explore the place of poetry in social and political life. Eileen Myles wrote in 2010 in Jacket,“he’s the poet who always changes the room he enters. He’s poetry’s answer to relational aesthetics. Which is the movement camped out now at the center of the art world in which the audience becomes the inevitable workings of the piece.”

Conrad was a 2011 Pew Fellow and a 2015 Headlands Art Fellow, and has received fellowships from the Lannan Foundation, the MacDowell Colony, Banff, Ucross, and RADAR. He is currently living in Asheville, North Carolina. Conrad’s commitment to a poetic practice that can manifest change is legible as much on the page as it is in the actions and community workshops he leads around the country. When asked by the Pew Center in 2014, “If you could collaborate with anyone alive today (someone you don’t know personally), who would it be?” Conrad answered, “I want to write some poems with the President of the United States, to apologize together for the millions of lives we rip to shreds with bullets, bombs, and drones. Three children die of war-related injuries every single day in Afghanistan. Then I want to write poems with him in the broken streets of Philadelphia and Detroit. […] THEN I want to write poems with him in the hills of Tennessee where my boyfriend Mark (aka Earth) was murdered. To this day, the police have written off his death as a suicide because they can’t be bothered to investigate a hate crime. No one but the president will do.”